“Hurrah for the Shoes!”

July 27, 1878

Thomas Nast

“Hurrah for the Shoes!”

Anglo-American Relations; Education, College; Sports and Recreation; Symbols, American Eagle; Symbols, John Bull; Symbols, Uncle Sam;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

Great Britain;


This Thomas Nast cartoon celebrates an Independence Day victory of an American crew from Monroe, Michigan, Sho-wae-cae-mettes (nicknamed the "Shoes"), over their British rivals at the prestigious Henley Royal Regatta in England.  

In sixteenth-century England, betting on which passenger boat would arrive first at its destination gave rise to organized competitions, which were held annually from 1715.  In England's American colonies, whale boat races were held off the New England coast by the 1760s.  Amateur rowing appeared in England, the United States, Canada, and Australia in the early decades of the nineteenth century.  Oxford and Cambridge took up the sport in the 1820s, first competing against each other in 1829 and organizing the Henley Regatta a decade later.

In the 1830s through the 1850s, amateur rowing clubs formed in American cities along the eastern seaboard, as well as in Pittsburgh, Louisville, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans.  Inspired by the New York clubs, a group of Harvard students founded the first college crew in 1844, and by 1850 several rowing clubs existed on the campus.  The sport was nearly banned in 1850, though, because of rowdy behavior exhibited by a Harvard crew in the city of Boston.

In 1852, corporate sponsorship motivated organization of the first intercollegiate athletic event in the United States, a rowing match in which Harvard defeated Yale.  In order to encourage rail travel to the resort area of Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, the Boston, Concord, and Montreal Railroad provided the college crews with an all-expense-paid, two-week vacation in return for participating in the resort's regatta.  

The company promoted the event with bright red fliers and advertisements of excursion train schedules.  The crews were met at the station by a brass band, and the spectators included Franklin Pierce, the Democratic presidential nominee from New Hampshire, and Josiah Abbot, justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Court.  The spectacle received sparse news coverage, however, and the New York Tribune predicted that intercollegiate sports would "make little stir in the busy world."

Coverage of the Oxford-Cambridge races in the American press, which disparaged physically weak American college students in contrast to the ruggedly fit English crews, goaded a Harvard student to suggest an intercollegiate regatta.  In 1858, rowing clubs from Harvard, Yale, Brown, and Trinity formed the College Regatta Association.  In 1859, the first regatta was held on the Connecticut River before a crowd of 15-20,000, and Harvard emerged victorious.  Press interest in the sport had grown so much since 1852 that the New York Herald reported the results of the 1859 intercollegiate regatta as its lead story.

Much of the public and press attention focused on the Harvard-Yale rivalry since they were considered the nation's top universities.  It also became increasingly clear to college administration, faculty, alumni, and students that press coverage of the regattas brought additional attention to their schools, and that the institutions' reputations were becoming intertwined with the sport.

With Harvard's dominance of rowing, Yale hired William Wood to train its crew, making him the first professional coach in American college athletics.  Wood put the crew on a strict health regimen and introduced new rowing techniques.  Under his direction, Yale defeated Harvard for the first time in 1864 and became the premier college team in the country.  The Harvard-Yale competitions continued until 1870 when an accusation that the Harvard crew had fouled the Yale boat provoked fighting among the 15,000 spectators.

In 1869, the Harvard crew generated considerable publicity when it traveled to England to compete against Oxford on the Thames River.  The race was telegraphed back by the new transatlantic cable.  Although Harvard lost by six seconds, it demonstrated that American rowers could compete well against the more experienced British.  It also inspired the formation in 1871 of the first intercollegiate athletic association in the United States, the Rowing Association of American Colleges.  

The original members of the Rowing Association were Harvard, Brown, Bowdoin, and Massachusetts Agriculture College (later, the University of Massachusetts).  Yale, still upset over the previous year's controversy with Harvard, refused to join.  Massachusetts Agricultural won the first regatta, provoking a Harvard student to lament that the triumph of the "bucolics" over the "intellectuals ... was a bitter pill to swallow."  But it encouraged other colleges to join the association, whose membership continued to expand over the years.

During the 1870s, rowing reached the height of its popularity in the United States and reigned as the major college sport in the East.  It was painter Thomas Eakin's 30 rowing pictures (1871-1874) that introduced him to the art world.  Tammany Hall politician John Morrissey promoted his resort at Saratoga, New York, by sponsoring a British-American contest in 1871 and the Rowing Association's regatta in 1874.  The latter was attended by 30,000 spectators, including President U. S. Grant, and was the centerpiece of weeklong social and sporting activities.  The winning Columbia University crew was met at Union Station by a brass band and a parade to the campus.  

For the Rowing Association's 1875 championship regatta, Harper's Weekly and the New York Herald joined forces to construct a 30-foot platform, on which they posted reporters and illustrators armed with binoculars.  Journalists from major newspapers telegraphed updates to their cities, where people eagerly awaited the results.  After Cornell won the event, its president, Andrew White, proclaimed that money could not buy the amount of publicity that the regatta freely generated for the university.

In 1878, Harper's Weekly gave ample coverage to the Henley Royal Regatta, particularly to the crew from Columbia University.  The journal profiled crew members, discussed their training, informed readers about the history of the famed English regatta, and provided detailed accounts of the race itself, along with illustrations and cartoons like the one featured here.  The Columbia team won the Visitors' Cup on July 5 after illness of a crew member forced the Sho-wae-cae-mettes to drop out of the race.

Here, Nast honors the Shoes' first place finish from the previous day's event. Uncle Sam and the American Eagle appear well pleased with their international athletic success. On the heel of the shoe is the state seal and motto ("If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you") of Michigan, the home state of the Sho-wae-cae-mettes crew.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Hurrah for the Shoes!”
June 17, 2024

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